In the NBA playoffs, it's extremely difficult for one-way players to maintain their regular season success. As coaches game plan for specific schemes and scrutinize video for the slightest advantage to exploit over the course of a two-week series, even small weaknesses become more pronounced. And then teams attack, forcing uncomfortable offensive players into making decisions, relentlessly going at substandard defensive players, and generally pressing any advantage they can.
Partially because of this, two-way wings with offensive ball skills and defensive versatility have become the league's most valuable type. Elite versions of this—think Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard—are already showing why this is so, with Giannis largely responsible for Milwaukee pushing favored Toronto in this year's postseason, and Leonard leading San Antonio to a 2-0 lead over Memphis after winning 61 regular season games. Conversely, a lack of similar wing talent is why Oklahoma City has yet to establish itself as anything more than a one-man band, and why the Los Angeles Clippers have their hands full with Utah.
Small wonder, then, that Kansas freshman Josh Jackson is such a coveted prospect in 2017 NBA Draft. The 6-foot-7 wing embodies much of what the league is looking for, and where the game is going. From his mindset to his athleticism to his basketball IQ, there's very little he can't do at a high level, and he's just 20 years old. And yet.
On the other hand, there are a few complicating factors—some involving alleged bad behavior off the court—that could end up limiting Jackson's ceiling. There are few players in this draft who can match Jackson's potential, but no high-level prospect comes with as many complicating variables.
Let's start with the good. Jackson is one of the fiercest competitors you'll find on a basketball court. Not only does the Detroit native have a team-first attitude and the willingness to do whatever is necessary to win, but he plays hard, with a fiery drive that few young players can match. The attitude is something that was instilled in Jackson at a young age, and something coaches love about him; the latter is all him, and something no coach can teach.
"Sometimes he'll get bored and you'll see him take a play or two off, but for the most part you're talking about a high-motor, super competitive kid," an NBA scouting director told VICE Sports. "Put it this way: Josh Jackson never would have gotten punked by De'Aaron Fox the way Lonzo (Ball) did [during Kentucky's victory over UCLA in the NCAA Tournament]. It's not in his DNA. He wouldn't let it happen."
Jackson's desire works well in conjunction with his physical ability. By NBA standards, he isn't quite an elite athlete, but he's just a hair below, a quick-twitch player capable of rising up and dunking, beating defenders with a quick first step, and reliably staying in front of his man on defense. He's also a one-foot leaper, which allows him to get an extra split second of time—and space—when finishing above the rim.
Jackson has been extremely productive within his age group. In the last 26 years of college basketball, he is the only freshman wing to put up a 16-point, seven-rebound, three-assist per game line and average 1.5 steals per game. Jackson turned 20 in February, which meant he was older than most freshmen, but he's still the only frosh or sophomore wing to put up those numbers while shooting at least 51 percent from the field. Moreover, Jackson did that for a Jayhawks squad that played against the eighth-toughest schedule in the country, according to KenPom.
With the ball in his hands, Jackson wasn't statistically special. But people around the NBA project him to be a solid secondary ball-handler at the professional level, someone who can initiate the offense as needed. At Kansas, Jackson was able to use his first step to get into the lane, both in pick-and-roll and top-of-the-key weave situations; he also showed off a nasty crossover and a good ability to change direction for someone his size.
Once in the paint, Jackson can beat defenses in a variety of ways—according to Synergy, he finished in college basketball's 73rd percentile in efficiency on runners, and in the 77th percentile on half-court shots at the rim. He also profiles as an excellent passer, both on the break and in half court situations. Jackson displayed terrific open floor vision as a high school star, and at Kansas he showed he could draw defensive help and create shots for his teammates with dump-off interior passes and kick-out passes to open perimeter shooters.
Jackson sometimes gets careless with the ball, but his turnover rate of 15.6 percent isn't a major NBA concern; his playmaking ability is simply too valuable. Off the ball, he finished in the top 25 percent of all college basketball players in scoring off cuts to the basket, and did the same in shooting off the catch.
So what's not to like? Currently, Jackson' shooting is a question mark. While he hit 38 percent of his three-point shots this season, he only made 56 percent of his free throws. "It's not bad when he just has to worry about catching and shooting," another NBA executive told VICE Sports. "When he doesn't have to dribble, he's good at getting himself into rhythm and getting up a clean shot even if he brings the ball a bit too far back to his head.
"But at the foul line, things are different. It's less instinctive, and Jackson is an extremely instinctive player. I don't mean this negatively, but he's not necessarily a guy who seems like he's thinking a ton out on the basketball floor. He's just reading and reacting. At the foul line, you get more of a chance to think."
That word—rhythm—is important. Early in the college season, Jackson tended to hesitate before shooting, or pass up shots in order to put the ball on the floor. He also has a lot of moving parts in his jumper, including bringing his hands back toward his face, a slight hitch at the top, and an inconsistent release point. Add that all up, and it makes sense that he often struggled to find a shooting grove. Confidence isn't an issue, but Jackson will have to tighten up his stroke and find a way to improve his free throw shooting in order to become an All-Star level offensive player.
On defense, Jackson already looks solid. Though he spent too much time defending power forwards at Kansas—something he probably won't do a lot of at the next level, given his thin frame and roughly average 6-foot-10 wingspan—he showcased many of the attributes NBA scouts look for in potential perimeter stoppers. First and foremost, he's a playmaker. Jackson creates transition opportunities for his team by getting into passing lanes for steals, contests and blocks shots at the rim as a help defender, and shows good timing on his rotations from the weak side. He also secures defensive rebounds at a high level, and has an awesome nose for the ball.
When defending on the ball, Jackson is tremendous at sliding his feet and staying in front of his man in order to either cut off penetration or contest shots. He keeps his hands wide and disruptive, too. Off the ball, he's fast enough to help on strong side post players and still close out under control against shooters. He sometimes struggles to fight through screens and stick to the hip of opposing players, but those are things he can improve with practice. Much of Jackson's undeniable instinctual ability can't be taught, and NBA talent evaluators consider that special.
"Obviously, I don't think Jackson will be as good as Kawhi (Leonard), but I think teams will be able to utilize him similarly to how the Spurs utilize Kawhi on defense," one of the aforementioned NBA executives said. "You just throw him onto the opposing team's best perimeter player, and allow him to utilize his athleticism and disruptive ability. He wasn't always great at Kansas, but in the NBA I think he'll be able to use his athleticism much more in the open space on that end."
From a pure basketball perspective, Jackson is not a perfect prospect. Those free throws are concerning, and so is his variable shooting form. He can get too wild with the ball, and his off-ball defense needs work. Much of that is nitpicking, however, given what Jackson can already do at an incredibly important position of need in today's NBA.
What isn't nitpicking, however, are Jackson's off-court issues at Kansas. NBA teams need to have a certain level of comfort with and trust in their draftees, both in terms of their personalities and what those players do off the floor. On February 2, Jackson was involved in a hit-and-run car accident that he didn't tell the school about until a month later. (He subsequently was suspended for the first game of the Big 12 Tournament). Earlier this month, Jackson pleaded not guilty to one misdemeanor count of criminal property damage; he was charged after allegedly kicking the driver's door and rear taillight of a car driven by Kansas women's basketball player McKenzie Calvert outside an area bar on December 9. According to an affidavit, Calvert told police that at one point Jackson yelled for her to get out of the car "and that he would beat her ass," and she and two other witnesses said he banged on the driver's window.
(According to the Kansas City Star, McKenzie Calvert's father, Tim, has requested a Title IX investigation into the incident, which was not reported to the university's Office of Institutional Opportunity and Access by anyone involved).
People make mistakes, and college kids tend to make them in bunches. It's possible that both incidents are not precursors to future problems for Jackson. But he'll have to explain himself and his actions during interviews with NBA teams, and those teams will have plenty of questions. These interviews can be the most important part of the pre-draft process, and what Jackson says could make or break what league executives think of him. On talent alone, he projects as a top five pick—but it's hard to say that will hold until teams get a chance to look him in the eye, ask him about what happened, and decide if his answers are sufficient.
On the right team, Jackson could become an early contributor. And if his off-court issues are truly behind him, he could develop into something even better. If you want to know why, just watch the current NBA Playoffs. Odds are, you'll see Leonard, Antetokounmpo, or one of the league's other two-way wings demonstrating just how important they can be.
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